By Mark Miller
Golf has had two major participation surges – in the mid-1950s thanks to people like former President Dwight Eisenhower and the legendary Arnold Palmer – and from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s because of Tiger Woods.
There’s no denying the sport has been in a bit of a slump since then. According to the National Golf Foundation, participation peaked in 2005 at 30 million people age 6 and older playing at least once that year. By 2010, it dropped to 26 million, plateaued at 24.7 million in 2013 and 2014, then dropped to 24.1 million in 2015.
Some cite the personal and professional decline of Woods as a major reason. Others believe it’s more about the time and cost required to play. To help reverse the trends, the industry has incorporated several programs, introduced new concepts and cultivated new stars that have many, including Jon Drago, director of the AT&T Byron Nelson Championships since 2009, optimistic.
“There’s a lot of resources and a lot of time being spent trying to grow the game that we obviously believe in as well,” said Drago, whose 2016 event will be held the week of May 16 in Irving.
“Recreationally it’s recovering nicely from where it was down a few years ago. I see it in my own kids. The things they’ve done with the PGA Junior League to bring more kids into golf and The First Tee Program and that sort of thing, I think we’re finally starting to see the results of that.”
Though the overall numbers are down, the NGF reports increases among committed and beginning golfers, and in the number of people considering taking up the game. Additionally, interest in playing golf is at an all-time high with an estimated 37 million non-golfers saying they would like to try it. That may be due in part to places like Top Golf which have helped introduce the game in a non-intimidating way that may ultimately result in more people playing more often.
“I think we’re just starting to see the benefits of all those programs and I think that will continue which is good for our business,” Drago said.
Additional efforts to promote affordability and less time on the course also have helped, Drago said. This includes the United States Golf Association’s Play9 program and courses promoting practice layouts.
“It’s a hard sport to learn and it’s easy to get frustrated,” Drago said. “So I think more places like where I play (Mansfield’s Walnut Creek Country Club) which has a three-hole loop or another course down that way that I believe has a six-hole practice loop you’re seeing more and more where you can have a lot of better, faster, cheaper access.”
There’s also been the rise of young professional players including Dallas’ own Jordan Spieth plus Jason Day and Rickie Fowler on the men’s side and Lexi Thompson and teenager Lydia Ko on the women’s. Their presence could be why there were 2.2 million beginning golfers in 2015, close to the all-time high of 2.4 million in 2000, the year Woods won three major championships. The largest group of beginners last year was Millennials which bodes well for the sport.
“I think Jordan Spieth and Jason Day and Rickie Fowler and the way they play the game and focus on competition but even more importantly how they conduct themselves off the golf course is something that everybody can wrap around as good for the sport,” Drago said.
Anything good for the sport will only help events like the Nelson and the Dean & DeLuca Invitational in Fort Worth the following week. Both events are in similar positions with newer title sponsors – the Nelson since last year and Dean & DeLuca in 2016 after nine previous years known as the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.
While corporate sponsorships were rare in professional golf’s early years that’s not the case today.
“There are a lot of tournaments that can’t exist without a title sponsorship,” Drago said.
For the Nelson, which started under the legendary golfer’s name in 1968, that change came in 1988 with the GTE Byron Nelson Classic. That continued through 2002, the last two years under the banner of Verizon which had bought GTE.
It became the EDS Byron Nelson Championship in 2003 which continued through 2014 when HP purchased EDS and stayed under HP through 2014. It will be under the AT&T name through at least 2021, two years after the event is scheduled to move to the new Trinity Forrest Golf Club being built south of Dallas.
“What we’re most proud of is we’ve only had three title sponsors in our history,” Drago said. “Where title sponsors turn quite a bit, we’ve been very fortunate.
“We’ve been associated with a lot of great brands and had a great run with EDS and HP for 12 years. We’re looking forward to a long relationship with AT&T.”
Drago said the biggest thing when switching title sponsors is how things are different perhaps most visibly the logo and corporate logos on-site.
“Like anything, with a new title sponsor, you have a process of learning what’s important to each other and how to best go about making sure you can deliver on that because what’s important to AT&T is different than what’s important to HP,” he said.
The key to a successful partnership is collaboration including numerous meetings throughout the year so there’s a balance between branding and running a successful tournament.
“Last year was a great year in our inaugural year with AT&T,” Drago said. “We went through the process of re-branding the tournament and changing the logo (both in 2015 and 2016 when AT&T changed its corporate logo). We’re learning what’s important and who we operate with. I always use the term it was like going on a first date with somebody that lasted an entire year.
“One thing that came up between AT&T and us is we want to be known as the most technologically-advanced, innovative tournament on the PGA Tour. We want to think of things that promote technology that grow the game of golf or things that have never been tried before.
This year for example, concession pricing menus will be electronic. Last year featured technology where people could rent a phone plug-in to access multiple broadcast channels.
Drago said the biggest differences between the previous and new sponsors are the personalities they deal with plus their target audiences. AT&T seeks more engagement with consumers while HP aims more for businesses. Plus it’s logistically easier to work with DFW-based AT&T, than HP whose key people are in California.
The timing and transition between sponsorships worked out great. AT&T wanted more presence in DFW after moving its headquarters from San Antonio. HP gave the Nelson leadership nearly two years notice of not renewing its contract allowing time to look for another. AT&T agreed to be the title sponsor before the final year with HP.
“We see our job as selling them every day delivering on what we’ve promised so that they don’t ever want to leave,” Drago said. “We kind of see that as our job.”